Stephen Jardine: Local artisans merit Christmas loyalty

Picture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed
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AHEAD of the food festivities, the news emerges that the Christmas pudding is our least favourite part of the big meal.

A survey for BBC’s Good Food magazine this week claimed just 54 per cent of us actually like the dried fruit climax to the festive feast.

That’s the challenge facing major retailers as they line up to try to tempt us back to the traditional pudding.

The best quality versions can take ten months to mature, so that investment means they are a key battleground for the supermarkets.

Waitrose have Heston’s Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding back in the shops, Marks & Spencer are offering their Sugar Plum Pudding filled with mulled sauce and Armagnac soaked plums, while Sainsbury’s are going the whole hog with an array including Hidden Cherry Christmas Puddings and even one made with Panettone.

If all this sounds excessive, a lot is at stake. Christmas sales at supermarkets are set to top £36 billion, up 4 per cent on last year. But more than this, Christmas is not a time when many people want to experiment in the kitchen.

Instead it’s left to the big retailers to deliver the wow factor. Alongside fancy versions of the traditional pudding, the centrepiece of the feast has also had a makeover. Goose sales rise every December as people look to make Christmas the food event of the year. In recent years we’ve also had three-bird roasts as competitive cooks try to outdo each other at the dinner table.

But the definitive trend in festive food this year has got to be glitter. Maybe emergence from recession makes showy opulence a bit more acceptable, or it could just be the changes in food technology, but this year all that glitters is Christmas.

Marks & Spencer have smoked salmon topped with gold leaf and festive fruit juice laced with glitter, but for the ultimate in bling Sainsbury’s has glistening Christmas baubles, made from chocolate but coated with edible gold dust.

So how can the small retailers compete with such excess? The truth is that Christmas is the one time of the year the supermarkets can’t pretend to be seasonal and local so they abandon any attempt to claim it comes from the farmer down the road.

Instead, the emphasis is on convenience and opulence. That leaves the way wide open for local producers to produce Christmas food that wins on taste and sourcing. For good artisan producers who have built up relationships with customers throughout the year, Christmas should be when that loyalty is rewarded.

But despite everything, one feature of the Christmas meal remains resistant to change. Despite all the advances in food technology, to me the Brussels sprout remains a taste too far.

Heston, that’s your next challenge.